MDMA (Ecstasy) and Memory Impairment

MDMA (Ecstasy) and Memory Impairment

MDMA (Ecstasy) and Memory Impairment

MDMA (Ecstasy) and Memory ImpairmentMDMA is the common abbreviation for 3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine, a manmade stimulant/hallucinogenic drug better known as Ecstasy. Use of this drug is closely linked to increased risks for several different health problems, including severe dehydration and the onset of a dangerously high body temperature. Current evidence indicates that relatively brief use of MDMA can also trigger significant damaging changes in certain aspects of normal memory function. Apparently, the underlying mechanism for these changes centers on MDMA’s ability to shrink the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that plays a critical role in the successful use of both short-term and long-term memory.

MDMA Basics

MDMA belongs to a group of drugs known as substituted amphetamines. Drugs in this category bear a strong chemical resemblance to the drug/medication amphetamine, and therefore typically produce some sort of stimulant effect inside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Each substituted amphetamine also has unique properties that vary according to the details of its chemical structure; in the case of MDMA, the chief unique property is its ability to produce some of the perceptual distortions usually associated with LSD, psilocybin, and other hallucinogens. The drug produces its combined stimulant/hallucinogenic effects by altering the brain’s normal levels of three separate neurotransmitting chemicals called serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Hippocampus Basics

The hippocampus is a paired, banana-shaped structure located within a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex. Each member of this pair sits inside a paired region of the cortex called the temporal lobe; in turn, each temporal lobe sits on either side of the brain near the part of the head known as the temple. The hippocampus plays a primary role in memory by allowing you to remember the details of specific events that happen in your life; scientists refer to this ability as autobiographical or episodic memory. In addition, the hippocampus helps you recall and communicate factual information, and also helps you navigate your surroundings by recording and recalling spatial memories of specific locations. As indicated previously, it performs all of these tasks for both short-term and long-term memories.

Effects of MDMA Use

MDMA may cause some degree of both short- and long-term memory impairment even when it’s taken only once, according to the findings of a 2008 report issued by the University of Hertfordshire’s Health and Human Sciences Research Institute. The authors of the report gathered their data from 26 separate studies that examined the effects of the drug on hundreds of individual users.  A second study, published in 2012 in the journal Addiction, examined the effects of MDMA in users who took the drug over the course of a year; while the average 12-month intake of all study participants was 32 doses of MDMA, some participants took as few as 10 doses. The authors of the study concluded that, even in users who took only 10 doses of the drug, significant impairments were apparent in both instant recall (immediate memory) and short-term memory.

As previously stated, MDMA apparently produces its memory-altering effects, at least in part, by literally shrinking the size of the hippocampus. The evidence for this finding comes from a study published in 2011 the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. The authors of this study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to examine the brains of long-term MDMA users still in their 20s. They concluded that, apart from the influence of others substances such as alcohol and cocaine, habitual MDMA use shrinks the overall size of the hippocampus by slightly more than 10 percent.


The authors of the study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry note that the hippocampus shrinkage found in MDMA users also appears in a similar form (though to a greater degree) in elderly people who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of severe, progressive memory and thought impairment. They also note that MDMA users who take the drug with any regularity for at least a year experience a roughly 4 to 5 percent decline in the overall size of their cerebral cortexes. This may mean that the drug produces structural and/or functional changes in other parts of the brain. The authors of the study in Addiction concluded that the memory deficits produced by MDMA often develop in slight, gradual degrees that don’t seem readily apparent to affected individuals. In real-world terms, this means that MDMA-related memory impairment may advance to a considerable extent before its effects are uncovered.

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